Conservatives at war over gay marriage

As the debate on legalising same-sex marriage approaches, over half of Tory MPs look set to vote against their leader. Are modern and traditional conservatives heading for divorce?

‘Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us,’ said UK Prime Minister David Cameron at the opening of a consultation on one of the most divisive issues of modern politics. ‘I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a conservative,’ he continued. ‘I support gay marriage because I am a conservative.’

Now, over a year after Cameron’s landmark speech outlined a conservative case for gay marriage, the Marriages (Same Sex) Bill is scheduled for a vote in the House of Commons tomorrow. If passed, all barriers to civil marriages between people of the same sex will be removed.

But while David Cameron and his fellow ‘modernisers’ welcome this course, many traditional Tories are fiercely opposed: reports suggest that up to 180 of the 303 Conservative members of the Commons may oppose their own leader.

This would not count as a rebellion, since party leaders have allowed MPs a ‘free vote’. But now, some Tories are even pushing to cancel the entire debate – is this the beginning of a rift within conservatism?

The Conservative Party has always been seen as a defender of traditional social structures and ‘family values’, and Cameron has gone to great efforts to persuade the public that this is still the case. But some still see him as a social liberal who does not understand traditional conservatism – and his firm support for gay marriage adds to this perception. ‘This is a policy dreamt up in Notting Hill,’ said one local leader.

Other regional Conservatives agree that the central party is diverging from the grassroots: in a recent survey, 71% said that ordinary members were overwhelmingly opposed to reform. And sure enough, party membership has almost halved under David Cameron, even as the Conservatives surged back into power.

Gay rights is not the only issue on which high-ranking conservatives differ from their traditional supporters. David Cameron has strongly defended Britain’s EU membership, for instance, a position shared by only a fifth of party activists; and his ‘hug a hoody’ speech arguing for giving young offenders ‘a lot more love’ famously provoked derision from right-wingers.


Many grassroots Tories feel betrayed by their leaders. ‘The Tory party does not belong to David Cameron’, said one activist. ‘It belongs to people around the country who have worked and campaigned for the party for a lifetime.’

But many ministers believe that they are sometimes justified in going against the beliefs of their core supporters. Ordinary people tend to be resistant to change, they say, but once it happens they will begin to see its benefits. Politicians should not be shackled to popular opinion: a ruler should lead the debate, not follow it.

You Decide

  1. Should gay marriage be legalised?
  2. Should a government’s policies always reflect the beliefs and attitudes of its supporters?


  1. Some conservatives argue that allowing same sex marriage would change its ‘definition’. Write a sentence that sums up your own definition of marriage.
  2. Imagine you are an MP and you have just received a letter from a group of people who voted for you and want you to vote against something you believe in. Write a reply explaining what you are going to do and your reasons for it.

Some People Say...

“In 20 years, everyone will have accepted gay marriage.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Doesn’t gay marriage exist already?
Not quite: same-sex couples in Britain can have their relationship recognised as a ‘civil partnership’, which conveys almost all of the financial benefits as marriage. But gay rights activists feel that the two institutions are not considered equally important.
Is this debate only happening in Britain?
Not at all: French MPs voted to back marriage just this weekend, after weeks of protest from both traditionalists and gay rights campaigners. US President Barack Obama came out in favour of gay marriage last summer, and nine American states now allow it in law. The same arguments are happening all over the world.

Word Watch

Civil marriage
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of same-sex marriage is the possibility that churches and other religious institutions may be forced to carry them out. However, the bill currently under debate explicitly bans the Anglican Church from overseeing gay marriages, while other religious bodies will only do so if they choose to ‘opt in’.
Free vote
For most parliamentary bills, each party instructs its own MPs on how to vote, with varying degrees of strictness (called ‘whips’). Occasionally, however, the leadership will decide that every MP is free to vote according to his or her conscience – though there may still be informal pressure to follow a party line.
Family values
Advocates of family values believe that the traditional family is the core unit of society, and that the government must represent its interests. In some ways David Cameron has reintroduced this idea into British politics, for instance by promising to introduce tax deductions for married couples. But opponents of gay marriage say that it undermines the ‘values’ in which Cameron claims to believe.
Notting Hill
An area of West London where Cameron lived before moving to the official Prime Ministerial residence in Downing Street. The party chairman was implying that this policy reflects the values of the wealthy and fashionable people who live in this area of London, rather than ordinary Conservative voters.

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